I have been home educating from the very beginning of life as a parent, though officially from when my eldest turned 5 years old in August 1996. I have never regretted the decision for a second. My children are 14 and 17 now, and my eldest is off at college, so I feel I am very much in the endgame of my home-educating years.
I have spent much time reflecting on, reading about and discussing home education and have been writing a column about it for JUNO for nine years. In this article we look at the questions I researched when I started out and those I am often asked, both personally and through JUNO.
We have also brought together some other voices who share their home-education perspectives. I think what I have learnt most over the years is that it is a very personal journey with no ‘right way’, but simply what works best for each family. It is a huge and exciting adventure, an experience you share with your children, and one that will change forever the way you look at the world. I hope these questions and answers help you, wherever you are on your journey.
Is it Legal?
I am still regularly asked by people I am meeting for the first time whether home educating our children is legal in the UK. So it’s important to get this straight: yes, it is.
Education is absolutely compulsory, but schooling is not. The responsibility for a child’s education lies with the parent or guardian. What the law – specifically, Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act – says is this:
Duty of parents to secure education of children of compulsory school age
The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable
(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and
(b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.
The italics are mine. It is the phrase “or otherwise” that allows education to take place elsewhere than in a school. This information and any updated advice on the legal situation can be found on the website of Education Otherwise, one of the two UK umbrella bodies offering help and advice to home educators.1
If you choose from the outset to home educate, there is at present no obligation on the parent in England and Wales (the law is different in Scotland) to inform the local authority of this decision. If, however, the authority becomes aware that you are home educating, it is obliged under the Education Act to assure itself that a suitable education is being provided, so it is wise to be aware and prepared for that eventuality. If you are taking your child out of school to home educate, you are legally obliged to de-register her with the school and local authority – so, from the outset, you will have contact with the local authority.
Every so often (as regular readers of my Home Education column will be aware) there will be a flurry of government interference that appears to threaten the freedom to home educate. So far, strident objections from the home-educating community and the triumph of common sense have protected our freedom.
Will my child have any friends?
Is school just for finding friends? You might be forgiven for thinking so from the number of times ‘socialisation’ is cited as a reason why school might be a better educational choice. Socialisation in a school context is a very different beast from the sort of socialisation one experiences as a home educator. When children enter the school system they suddenly find themselves in a class with anything from 15 to 30 other children of around the same age. Some of them will find friendly faces amongst the crowd, and a few will struggle in a situation that, if mimicked in the post-school world, would be found daunting by most adults. School does not teach sociability.
The issue of finding friends is often a big one for any would-be home educator. Will their child have a social life? And you can probably add to that whether the home-educating parent will have any friends either. There is still a misperception that home education takes place behind locked doors.
The heartening news for those new to home education is that there is a huge community of like-minded souls out there, and local groups can be accessed via the internet or via sites such as Education Otherwise and the Home Education Advisory Service (HEAS).2 Local groups are parent-run and offer a variety of ways in which children and parents can get to know one another. Sometimes groups are building-based and offer weekly get-togethers purely for socialising. Other groups offer trips and workshops at galleries, museums, theatres. As the children grow older, these groups often start to develop into tutorial groups for teens wanting to take GCSEs.
Do I have to be a qualified teacher?
The swift answer to this is no. No formal qualifications are required to educate your own children. And why would there be? No formal qualifications are required for anyone to become a parent, or to be there as their child learns to walk and talk. Home education is, in many ways, simply a natural progression from those very early years. Instead of handing your child over to state-trained teachers, you are more than qualified as the parent of that child to continue with his education. The qualifications of teachers are there to indicate (though not necessarily to guarantee) competence, and their training will include skill sets that wouldn’t be necessary in the home, such as managing large groups of children and delivering curriculum objectives.
How do you home educate?
There are as many different ways of home educating as there are parents who do it. It is perfectly possible to mimic the formality of the school timetable and curriculum at home, and for some home educators that is the way they prefer to do it. Often parents who have de-registered their children from school will initially feel more comfortable with this approach. At the other end of the home-educating spectrum is the autonomous, which is an entirely child-led style of home education. This means that you allow, support and encourage your child to follow her passions and interests rather than forcing her to study subjects in which she has absolutely no interest. What probably happens in the vast majority of home-educating families is a mish-mash of educating styles. I personally have encouraged my children to pursue their particular interests while continuing to input breadth through trips out. We have also done a fair bit of the formal in the last couple of years, once the decision had been made to study for a few GCSEs.
Do children have to take exams?
Just as schooling is not compulsory, neither are examinations (although Michael Gove is almost certainly plotting in that direction). Children at school are certainly made to believe that GCSEs are compulsory, but they are in fact a choice. Taking GCSEs and A levels outside the formal school system can definitely be a challenge. Secondary schools are designed as examination factories and it is what they excel at. It is very difficult to see a home-educated child through 10 to 15 GCSEs. If that is what you believe is important to your child’s education, putting him into school to do that might be a saner way of proceeding. In order to cover the exam curriculum, it is necessary for the child to be tutored, whether via a distance learning course on the computer, a private tutor or a committed parent, or in a group with other home-educated children. Exams are much more about technique than about what is supposedly being learnt.
Once you have masterminded your way through setting up how the curriculum is to be delivered, you then have to jump the hurdle of finding an exam centre that will accept external candidates. This can be expensive (in excess of £100 per exam, and highly variable). Independent schools and colleges can be helpful and should be encouraged to be so by reminding them of what their charitable status demands in terms of extending help to the community. I suspect public examinations will continue to cause headaches for home educators.
What about problems?
I am conscious that my home-educating experience might seem rather idealised. However, that is perhaps because I am towards the end of the journey and everything is looking rather good at this stage. That is not to say that every day has been plain sailing. Of course there have been days when the children appeared to be in educational free fall and I wanted to retreat to the airing cupboard and rock gently to and fro. There have often been tough decisions to be made and I have had to help the children decide while not really knowing what the right answers are myself. There was that day when I had to justify my whole philosophy to the local authority once I had come to its notice.
In all of these more challenging times, what has seen me through is complete faith in what I am doing, nerves of steel, and total trust in my children’s ability to find their way. When you are a home educator, the buck absolutely stops with you.
Why do you home educate your children?
Because I love it! As Heraclitus says, education is to light a fire, not to fill a bucket. When my children were younger, we visited pretty well every museum and gallery London has to offer; we have been to hundreds of theatre performances, have played in the great parks and grounds of stately homes in London and the home counties, and have attended dozens of workshops in church and village halls. It is a life that has been rich both for the children and for me.
My daughter is now enjoying the last of her two years at college working towards a BTEC in Creative Media, Film and Television Production, and my son is still home educated, his time now divided between formal study for GCSEs and visits to places of interest. Both of my children have a wide circle of friends, both home-educated and schooled.
And just to blow my own trumpet so others might take heart, in a recent conversation about college, my daughter, totally unprompted (and, frankly, rather taking me by surprise), said that she had learnt so much more from me than from all of her teachers at college put together. Which, really, is as it should be, but it is lovely to have it recognised by the person to whom it matters the most. •
Autonomous: Child-led education, where the child is free to choose what to focus on and is not forced to study any particular subject. Sometimes called non-schooling, free-schooling or un-schooling.
Flexi-school: An arrangement between a parent and a head teacher whereby the child is permitted to attend the school part time, the rest of the time being educated at home.
De-schooling: This takes place when a child has been de-registered from school in order to be home educated. It is a period of transition for both parent and child during which they adapt to home education. Depending on the reasons for de-registration from school, this may take up to a year.
Natural Learning and the Natural Curriculum: Anybody, Any Age; Any Time, Any Place; Any Pathway, Any Pace by Roland Meighan, Educational Heretics Press
How Children Learn at Home by Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison, Continuum
School is Not Compulsory: The Essential Introduction to Home-based Education, Education Otherwise
Free Range Education: How Home Education Works edited by Terri Dowty, Hawthorn Press
Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Home Schooling by John Holt & Pat Farenga, Perseus Books
Claire Evans read English and Drama at Royal Holloway College, London University and after a faltering start via the Civil Service, the Law Society, Guildford School of Acting, and teaching drama in three Surrey prisons, she finally got herself into the world of theatre, as an agent. After a 15-year break to bring up and home educate her two children, she returned to her career in 2010, reinvented as an independent theatre producer. She is magnificently supported in all aspects of her life by her husband, Alasdair. They all live in Esher, Surrey. (Accurate at the time this issue went to print)
Illustrations by Claire Shorrock – www.claireshorrock.com
First published in Issue 35 (Spring 2014) of JUNO: